BIO5 receives $50 million NSF grant

January 30, 2008

By Flinn Foundation

Compiled from media sources

How does a small set of cells give rise to all the aboveground structures of a plant? How do plants interact with and influence their environment and the organisms around them? How did plants evolve from aquatic to terrestrial organisms?

Questions like these, though clearly fundamental to plant biology—and to the life sciences more broadly—don’t seem like standard targets for scientific inquiry. Such questions involve many fields, and even to begin to answer such questions would require enormous sets of data from disparate sources. No single institution, no matter how large, could reasonably expect to make real progress on such mysteries.

Nevertheless, those “grand challenge questions” are the kind that will receive attention from the iPlant Collaborative, an unprecedented “cyberinfrastructure” project, global in scope, that will be housed at the University of Arizona’s BIO5 Institute. Funded by a National Science Foundation grant worth $50 million over five years—and renewable, for a potential sum of $100 million—the project will enable investigators in plant science around the world to use data that already exist or are being generated to pursue their research goals.

“This global center is going to change the way we do science,” said UA plant sciences professor Richard Jorgensen, the grant’s principal investigator. “We’re bringing many different types of scientists together who rarely had opportunities to talk to one another before. In so doing, we’ll create the kind of multidisciplinary environment that is necessary to crack the toughest problems in modern biology.”

At the core of the grant, and the iPlant Collaborative is what the NSF has termed a “cyberinfrastructure” specifically built to handle the grand challenge questions of plant science. Where industrial economies have historically depended on infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and rail lines, power grids, and telephone systems, cyberinfrastructure includes distributed computer, information and communication technology crucial for a knowledge-based economy. Cyberinfrastructure, a 2003 NSF report explained, includes “the enabling hardware, algorithms, software, communications, institutions, and personnel on which innovative science and engineering research and education environments can be built.”

“Because of the internet and cyberinfrastructure, this is the first time in the history of science that everyone can access the same data at the same time using the same tools as the researchers generating that data,” said Vicki Chandler, BIO5’s director.

Rather than support new experimental research and data gathering, the iPlant Collaborative will direct its cyberinfrastructure resources to integrate previously dispersed and unconnected efforts of plant scientists, computer and information scientists, mathematicians, and engineers around the world.

Via high-performance computing resources and new software applications, iPlant will provide researchers—as well as students and educators—open access to heterogeneous data sets and the tools to compare those data sets to each other. Via advanced networking and communications resources, iPlant will allow scientists working remotely to collaborate and share findings with each other more readily.

Those investigators around the world will determine the grand challenge questions for iPlant. And, Dr. Jorgensen argued, such broad inquiries are warranted. “Everything’s connected,” he said. “As our climate changes and our environment changes we need to have a deep understanding of the biology of plants from the molecular to the ecosystem level in order to understand and mitigate the problems that will arise—to adapt as best we can and to focus our efforts on saving the organisms and ecosystems that are most important to save.”

For UA and BIO5, winning the iPlant grant—three times larger than any previous NSF grant to an Arizona institution—means a major infusion of brainpower and computing power. In the immediate future, 15 to 30 new plant scientists, computer scientists, and programmers will be hired, Dr. Chandler said in the Arizona Daily Star.

The integrative, interdisciplinary model of conducting bioscience research at BIO5 was instrumental in UA winning the award, said Leslie Tolbert, UA vice president for research, in the Daily Star. UA will retain 79 percent of the grant funds, with several partner institutions splitting the remainder; Arizona State University will receive 4 percent of the dollars for its contribution of high-performance computing resources and expertise.

Dr. Chandler noted that having iPlant’s headquarters in Tucson would also provide an economic boon. “We’re going to be doing revolutionary, cutting-edge research that’s driving research across the world,” she said in the Daily Star. “That ought to be a pretty exciting thing to position your company near. I think that is really going to help promote this region as a region that can do high technology.”

Gov. Janet Napolitano, speaking at a press conference at the state Capitol, said that the iPlant grant showed that Arizona’s investments in the biosciences and higher education—such as the passage of Proposition 301 in November 2000, which paved the way for the creation of BIO5—are paying off.

“Arizona’s future lies in innovation in areas like the biosciences, and we are tremendously proud that the National Science Foundation has chosen Arizona to chart a new course in plant science research,” Napolitano said in the Republic.

For more information:

UA nets first leg of $100M research grant to create global plant biology center,” Business Journal of Phoenix, 1/30/2008

UA gets $50M bioscience grant,” Arizona Republic, 1/30/2008

UA gets $50M for global science center,” Arizona Daily Star, 1/31/2008